Global estimates of headaches suggest disorder impacts more than 50% of people

Researchers found that the prevalence of headache disorders remains high worldwide.

12 April 2022

More than half of the global population are affected by headaches every year, new estimates suggest.

A review of the evidence suggests 52% of people across the world are affected by a headache disorder – including tension and recurrent headaches, with 14% reporting migraines.

Although headaches are one of the most prevalent and disabling conditions worldwide, studies of headache prevalence can vary greatly, and this could impact how the global rates of headaches are estimated.

Lars Jacob Stovner, lead author, said: “We found that the prevalence of headache disorders remains high worldwide and the burden of different types may impact many.

“We should endeavour to reduce this burden through prevention and better treatment.

“To measure the effect of such efforts, we must be able to monitor prevalence and burden in societies.

“Our study helps us understand how to improve our methods.”

Authors from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology reviewed 357 publications from between 1961 and the end of 2020 to estimate the global prevalence of headaches.

Based on the review, the authors estimate that 52% of the global population have experienced a headache disorder within a given year, with 14% reporting a migraine, 26% reporting a tension-type headache and 4.6% reporting a headache for 15 or more days per month.

From the 12 studies that reported on headache during the last day, the authors estimate that 15.8% of the world’s population have a headache on any given day, and almost half of those individuals report a migraine (7%).

All types of headache were more common in females than males, most markedly for migraines (17% in females compared to 8.6% in males), and headaches for 15 or more days per month (6% in females compared to 2.9% in males).

The majority of publications considered in the review reported on adults between 20 and 65, but some also included adolescents and children as young as five, and elderly people over the age of 65.

Building on a previous report from 2007, Prof Stovner and colleagues also measured the differences in methods across the studies they reviewed.

They found that most studies reported on headache prevalence during the past year.

However, some studies reported on headache prevalence across the whole lifetime and some for much shorter periods, including instances of headache within the last day.

Prof Stovner said: “Compared to our previous report and global estimates, the data does suggest that headaches and migraines rates may be increasing.

“However, given that we could explain only 30% or less of the variation in headache estimates with the measures we looked at, it would be premature to conclude headaches are definitively increasing.

“What is clear is that overall, headache disorders are highly prevalent worldwide and can be a high burden.

“It may also be of interest in future to analyse the different causes of headaches that varied across groups to target prevention and treatment more effectively.”

The authors acknowledge the majority of publications they reviewed came from high-income countries with good healthcare systems so this may not reflect every country.

The review is published in The Journal of Headache and Pain.

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